Staying civil online

On the occasion of Safer Internet Day 2017, Microsoft has published its first Digital Civility Index showing people’s perceptions of online behaviors and interactions in 14 different countries. The results demonstrate an urgent need to reinforce a culture of digital civility and promote effective public policies that protect people online, and we are encouraging people to take Microsoft’s “Digital Civility Challenge”.

It’s no coincidence that the same adjective that relates to a country’s citizens – “civil” – is also synonymous with courtesy and politeness. Almost 70 years ago, the UN General Assembly unanimously enshrined freedom of expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But this right can only be preserved when underpinned by respect for others, regardless of any difference in opinion.

Over the past year, we’ve seen an increased polarization of online discourse, frequently descending into harassment, denigration or intimidation. As the Microsoft Digital Civility Index shows, this kind of negative online behavior can have real-world consequences for those at the receiving end – ranging from increased stress or mental health problems, to financial losses or reputation damage.

Across the four EU Member States included in the survey – the UK, Germany, France, and Belgium – over 56% of respondents said they, or a family member, had been exposed to online risks in their lifetime. These risks include unwanted contact (38%), being treated meanly (17.5%), sexual solicitation (14.5%), trolling (14%), online harassment (12%) or exposure to hate speech (10%).

We are all tasked with safeguarding the values that define our societies – including respectful and civil discourse both online and offline – in order to foster a positive environment for each and every citizen.

Policymakers need to promote approaches that deter online exploitation and harassment, as well as actively collaborating with civil society and industry to raise awareness of online risks and agree foundational principles for counteracting these.

The European Commission has taken several steps in this regard, which Microsoft has always supported. In May 2016, we were one of several technology companies to sign the Commission’s Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online, and we were a member of the CEO Coalition on creating a Better Internet for Kids, put together by the Commission in 2011. And even before, we signed the Safer Social Network Principles in 2009.

Now we have united with other private sector companies from a range of sectors, as well the Commission and relevant NGOs, to form the Alliance to Better Protect Minors Online. This initiative aims to help minors across Europe embrace all the opportunities of digital technology without compromising their safety, rights or freedoms.

Our commitment to this new alliance is part of a wider reflection on how to make the most of the Internet to transform our societies without leaving anyone behind. Technology can only be at its best when it benefits everyone, rather than just the fortunate few. Despite their past exposure to online risks, the European respondents of our Digital Civility Index survey were positive about the future, showing less concern that online risks would worsen. Let’s give credence to their optimism, by working together to create a more inclusive online environment rooted in digital civility.

About the Author

Government Affairs Manager – Accessibility, Sustainability and Environment Policy

Adina Braha-Honciuc leads Microsoft’s Accessibility, Sustainability and Environment Policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Prior to this, she has been working on policy issues relating to cloud computing and the digital economy, primarily privacy and data protection, and represented Read more »